If you drive down the highway about 32 km southwest of Antananarivo, you may be surprised to see a giant white satellite dish next to some abandoned buildings not far from the road. This is a relic of the American space program in the 1960s and 1970s. Here’s an excerpt about it from NASA’s book, “I Read You Loud and Clear,” about the worldwide communications network it built in countries around the world to support space exploration:
On 19 December 1963, the U.S. entered into a 10-year agreement with the Malagasy Republic allowing for the installation of a transportable ground station outside the port city of Majunga in northwest Madagascar. This agreement was reached in accordance with the spirit of a United Nations resolution calling for the application of results of space research to benefit all peoples. In addition to benefiting that region of the world by generating much-needed weather forecasts (especially during hurricane season), the station provided jobs for some 200 local residents in nontechnical positions for handling of day-to-day station maintenance. In reaching this agreement, NASA sent a delegation to the capital city of Tananarive where they were “received by the president, Mr. Philibert Tsiranana, most graciously in an office decorated with space memorabilia.” He soon gave the United States his enthusiastic support and permitted NASA to start bringing telemetry vans into Majunga.
Explanatory literature handed out to familiarize station workers assigned to Madagascar described the environment as an area of mild winters and rainy summers, a relatively expensive but charming place to live. The handbook noted that the people of Madagascar were not politically minded and were predisposed to favor America and Americans. Harry McKeehan, who represented GSFC in negotiations with the Republic, called “our friendship with the president and the people of this island republic invaluable in building and operating this Indian Ocean site.” This cooperation was to play a pivotal role later when a political uprising in nearby Zanzibar created a tense situation, one in which American lives were put in jeopardy that required an evacuation to the Malagasy Republic.
The station in Majunga was later moved to “Tananarive,” as the capital of newly-independent Madagascar was called in French. Eventually, however, the relationship between the United States and Madagascar would sour, and the station would be shut down.
At age 80, Mr. Ratsiraka still makes the occasional public appearance. I wonder if he ever drives by the station and thinks about those turbulent times in the 1970s?
Update: I’ve since been told that THIS apparatus is not in fact the famed NASA satellite tracking station – it’s about 10 miles away and the dish has been removed. However, all of the history above is still correct. And let’s just say a video of the REAL station would be much less interesting, visually.